Saturday, May 28, 2011

Shrooming, part 2

As I mentioned in the last post, I am now a mushroom farmer of very small scale. I have 10 shiitake logs, which should begin to fruit a year from now and produce about 2.5 pounds each over approximately 5 years. This is not nearly enough to satisfy my personal demand, so I'll continue to be a good customer at the farmer's market and Oryana, but I'm still very excited to find an edible crop that is suited for my shady back yard and requires minimal effort.

my shiitake farm
I acquired these logs a few weeks ago at an all-day workshop I attended at the beautiful Ware Farm near Bear Lake. Bernie and Sandee Ware are marvelous organic farmers, growing delicious asparagus and succulent strawberries as well as many varieties of veggies. Bernie got turned on to shiitakes by fellow organic farmer Jim Moses, introduced in the previous blog post, and now has hundreds of shiitake logs in the wooded areas of his farm.

Back in early April, Bernie joined forces for a day with ISLAND -- a small, innovative local non-profit inspired to promote community self-sufficiency and ecological sanity through a blend of programs celebrating art and nature. On ISLAND's tiny staff is the intrepid Yvonne Stephens, who with her husband, Jason, have become mushroom evangelists. For this one-day workshop, the Stephenses and the Wares procured all the materials necessary for inoculating 100 maple logs, cut by Bernie on his farm the previous day.The 10 lucky workshop attendees took turns at one of three stations: drilling, inoculating and waxing. (Being nervous of power tools, I skipped the drilling station). At the end of the day, which included a delicious potluck lunch featuring soups Sandee had prepared with their shiitakes, we each took home 10 inoculated logs and the knowledge to care for them.

I also learned that I have much yet to learn about mushrooms. I fancy myself to be at least marginally knowledgeable of most culinary inputs and procedures, yet I was surprised to learn from Sandee that shiitakes can be dried and powdered and used in soups or gravies as a flavoring and thickening agent. Fabulous!

I haven't even begun to explore the medicinal uses of shiitakes and other mushrooms, nor the ecological benefits (just this week I saw a story about oyster mushrooms breaking down disposable diapers), but I know where to find the ultimate guru. His name is Paul Stamets and he's the high prophet of the mushroom people. I have his book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, which is exceptionally comprehensive. I'm pretty sure Yvonne and Jason have all of his books, and I may soon get to that level of mushroom mania.

I purchased my sole mushroom book a few years ago at our local Bioneers conference after I was so entranced by Stamets' presentation that to this day I still can't remember anything else I saw or heard at the conference. He was on stage at the large national conference in California (we watched via satellite) and as it began, it was painfully obvious that he would much rather be out in the forest than in front of a large audience. He stammered and confessed to being a shy and awkward speaker. But as he continued, I was mesmerized. He introduced me to a fungi kingdom that is mysterious, magical, powerful, intricate and abounding with potential to restore and heal our planet and ourselves.

I haven't been able to find a complete video of Stamets' Bioneers speech online, but at the bottom of the biography page on his company's website is a link to a very similar presentation he made for TED.

And now, one of my favorite recipes for shiitakes, adapted from Thomas Kelller's Ad Hoc at Home cookbook (his recipe is for morels):

Shiitakes in Madeira

1 lb (roughly) fresh shiitakes
4 tbsp butter
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
2 tsps fresh thyme
1/2 cup Madeira
salt and pepper to taste

Clean the mushrooms, if necessary, with a brush or wet paper towel, or just wash them in a bowl of water and rub them dry. Remove the stems (can cook them in 1-2 cups of water to make a quick base for miso soup later) and slice any large caps. Heat the butter in a large skillet and cook the shallot for a couple of minutes. Add the thyme and the shiitakes and stir around for another minute or so, then add the Madeira and cook until tender. Season with salt and pepper.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Shrooming, part 1

It's morel hunting season in northern Michigan, and I would wager this annual foray to find fungi gold draws more humans to the woods than the deer hunt. Unlike France, where trained dogs and pigs sniff out treasured truffles, we must use human ingenuity to find our version of mycelium heaven. The morels at least emerge from the ground, which makes them visible to the human eye, but they are often obscured by fallen leaves.

When we first moved to northern Michigan, nearly 20 years ago, we lived in a suburban house bordering a large patch of forest. The hunting in those woods was good enough that we could treat ourselves to a few breakfasts of scrambled eggs with morels, or a side dish of sautéed morels. Since moving downtown 12 years ago, we haven't found a single morel during our hikes in various public forests. I've given up.

No matter. I have something equally good, and I'm raising them in my backyard. I'm now a shiitake farmer. I won't get my first crop until next spring, but when these morsels puff out of their logs, I'm certain they will taste better to me than any elusive morel.

I've long been a fan of shiitakes from a culinary perspective. My first experience were with dried shiitakes packaged in plastic bags with Japanese lettering. I bought these in natural foods stores and typically used them in soups. I had never purchased fresh shiitakes until I moved to Traverse City, where mushroom farmers extraordinaire Jim Moses and Linda Grigg sell their harvest all summer at the downtown farmer's market. These plump, meaty and tender shiitakes are getting to be almost as difficult to procure as morels. I'm not an early riser on Saturday mornings, which often leaves me disappointed when I arrive at their stand on the west end of the market; "they've cleaned me out already!" Jim tells me.

(Fortunately, Jim and Linda also supply shiitakes to Oryana, so I'm not out of luck forever, and I'll be cooking a batch tonight for a fine dinner. Check back tomorrow for a great recipe!)

I interviewed Jim for a story I wrote for the Oryana newsletter last month about the interaction between the local foods movement and organics. Jim called yesterday to tell me he was pleased with the way I quoted him in the story (whew!) but he wished he had made a few additional points.

In the story, Jim said he believes some large foundations that have been traditionally allied with industrial agriculture are supporting the local foods movement as a diversionary tactic, to "get people asking the wrong questions." Jim said he wishes he had made clear that the questions people should be asking about their food begin with "why" and "how", not "where". As he said, no human activity is more fundamental than the growing of food; intent and methods matter more than food-miles.

With his long, white hair and often fiery rhetoric, Jim can call to mind a biblical prophet shouting at the gates of the city. Anyone who preaches stern, unpopular messages must be prepared to make a few enemies, and Jim has his share. His devil is Monsanto, a corporation he calls "pure evil" for, among other things, its production and aggressive promotion of genetically engineered "Roundup Ready" seeds designed to survive a dousing of the Monsanto glyphosate herbicide that kills every other green thing it touches.

Because Jim's devotion to the integrity of soil and water extends beyond his garden, he has recently been trying to get people and organizations here to reconsider efforts to control the spread of phragmites, a common wetlands reed regarded as invasive. Jim said he's gotten nothing but hostility for his complaints that using chemicals to eradicate the plant will do more harm to the ecosystem than would the spread of the phragmites. (If any phragmites eradicators happen to read this, please comment below; I was too timid to seek out alternative interviews for such an obscure blog).

Jim is equally uncompromising on chemicals in the garden. Prior to the adoption of the national organics certification program, Jim was a certification inspector for one of the regional organics agencies. He's aware that his relationship with other growers was strained by his unwillingness to give applicants a pass on practices that others might have merely frowned upon or overlooked entirely. His advocacy for the national standards has often been seen by other local growers as a "get certified or you're not really organic" stance, causing additional friction.

Yet Jim has softened a bit on that subject. He has compliments for some in the community who are producing good food despite lack of organic certification, and he told me yesterday that he wishes the organics movement had built a larger tent. He likes the European designation of biological farming.

Now I wish to stop writing about gardening and go work in mine. If you enjoyed reading about this mushroom man, come back tomorrow-ish and I will introduce you to two others, plus give you what I believe to be the most delicious of all recipes for shiitakes.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lunch and a Movie

When I began home schooling my daughter Leah nearly two years ago, I had no plan and few ideas on how to guide her education. One day, desperately flailing about for an activity, I suggested we go to the morning movie at our beautifully-restored downtown cinema, the State Theater. Every Wednesday, the State shows a classic movie for 25 cents, the same price charged when it first opened as the Lyric in 1916.

This activity, followed by lunch at one of the many terrific downtown restaurants, has become a ritual for us. Regardless of weather conditions or our personal health, we walk downtown every Wednesday morning for a movie and lunch.

I have come to appreciate the educational value of films so much that I've referred to the State and Netflix as my two most important curriculum partners. Through film, to which my daughter responds with enthusiasm and attention that no printed matter comes close to inspiring in her, I have taken her around the world and through history. Her French lessons are supported by Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris; a unit on western expansion became visual, thanks to Netflix, through "Dances with Wolves" and (for the pre-enlightened treatment) "How the West was Won".

The Wednesday classic movies follow a monthly theme, often honoring an actor, director or writer, but sometimes a genre or inspiration. Previous months have celebrated Woody Allen, Lena Horne, John Hughes, and 1939. So far this year, we've had the themes of "great dads", classic romances, spring musicals, and Cary Grant. In the past two years of Wednesday classics, I'll roughly estimate that I've seen fewer than half of these films previously. Even when it's a film I know, screening it at the State is like seeing it for the first time. Watching "Out of Africa" on the State's magnificent screen, sitting in the most comfortable theater seats on the planet, was an experience that so eclipsed television viewing that it moved me to tears, almost through the entire movie!

Yesterday, segueing from Cary Grant month to what appears to be either Stanley Donen or Aubrey Hepburn month (entire May schedule not yet released), we were treated to "Charade", an exquisite film I'm embarrassed to say I'd never before seen in its entirety. Audrey Hepburn's hats! Cary Grant's charm! This film had everything: perfect direction, tight screenplay, witty dialogue, suspense, thrilling chase scenes (in high heels), romance, Henry Mancini score, and Paris. Two thumbs up, and I rate it 10/10.

Over lunch, we discuss the film and I'll mention scenes or features that I find illuminating. One of my favorite examples of film as a time capsule comes from Woody Allen's "Play it Again, Sam". He pays tribute to Humphrey Bogart and "Casablanca," references I had to explain afterwards to Leah as she had not seen "Casablanca" (although she soon became acquainted with Bogey when his films were featured). The most striking time warp aspect of "Play it Again, Sam" involved the use of the telephone. Great comedy was made of one character (the Laszlo equivalent) so devoted to his work that he couldn't be out of touch from his office; the first thing he did when he entered a house, restaurant, bar or gallery was to call his office and leave the house phone number. No cell phones back in the 1970s! We spent much time discussing how this comedic turn would need to be rewritten today.

When I mentioned to some friends last year that I was using movies as curriculum, one told me of another parent who home schooled his son using only movies and wrote a book about it. As usual for me, I read reviews of the book, The Film Club: A Memoir, by David Gilmour, who had a special expertise in the area as he is a professional film critic. Despite my lack of expertise, I've been comforted that a curriculum of only film could work out well for a teenager. (I've supplemented the films with a standard 8th grade curriculum from an online school this year).

Our mother-daughter Wednesday film club will be ending in September, as Leah has chosen to enroll in the nearby high school. These past two years have been among the most rewarding of my life, and I hope it has served her well. Although I'll miss her company beyond measure, I'm excited for her as she takes this important step into the world. And I know we will continue to enjoy movies together in the evenings and weekends.

My deepest appreciation to all the volunteers and donors who have made the State Theater such a gem in our community, and particularly the leadership and dedication of Michael Moore.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ethiopian-Indian fusion

I hosted my book group Thursday night for our discussion of  Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. This debut novel is a beautifully-written, expansive story of family, loyalty and profession set in three continents and featuring well-developed characters from four nationalities. Mr. Verghese, who was born in Ethiopia of Indian parents, is a physician and professor of medicine at Stanford. That would be more than enough success for most people, but now he can add "best-selling author" to his achievements. I'm impressed.

Trying to keep our book group dinner on theme, I looked for some Ethiopian recipes. I remembered a few in my trusty old Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant: Ethnic and Regional Recipes from the Cooks at the Legendary Restaurant (Cookery), and since I have no dedicated Ethiopian cookbooks in my vast collection (an oversight that must be rectified!), I chose the recipes for two vegetarian stews and injera, a spongy flatbread. I also attempted to make t'ej, an Ethiopian honey wine, from the method described in Sander Katz' Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.

T'ej to be, maybe
I started the t'ej about three weeks ago, but I think it's not quite ready. I had to skim some mold off the surface a couple of days before the book group dinner, so I didn't dare serve it to my guests. This is my first attempt at wine-making of any type and I'm not sure how I'll know when it's good.

Both of the stews turned out well and the homemade spice blend (berbere) and spicy clarified butter (niter kibbeh) I used in cooking gave off the most intoxicating aroma. My friends said they smelled it from outside and couldn't wait to taste.

Being a slacker, I didn't read the Moosewood recipe for injera until the morning of the dinner and discovered that it required three days of fermentation! Not to be dissuaded, I googled for "quick injera" and was pleased to find several instructions for approximating its taste by using wheat flours, lemon juice and seltzer. This quick version was no more difficult to mix than the average pancake batter. None of my guests seemed disappointed.

glorious Meadowlark spinach
Saag Ethiopia
Anyway, last night I was reflecting on the cultural blend of Ethiopia and India in the novel, and recalling the delicious Indian saag paneer that Jodi contributed to our dinner, and looking at a large bag of Meadowlark Farm spinach in the refrigerator, when I had a sudden inspiration: why not make Ethiopian saag? I still had berbere and niter kibbeh. So I diced an onion, sauteed it in a couple of tablespoons of niter kibbeh, added about a tablespoon of berbere and then the spinach. It was simple and delicious!

P.S. Check out the May/June Oryana newsletter for my story on local food and why organic still matters. The story was prompted by this article by Ronnie Cummins and colleagues published by Organic Consumers Association.